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Grassroots research

In 2000, a six-year-long research project on precision agriculture that the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board funded at Iowa State University (ISU) was winding down. That study was significant in what it revealed about the value and adoption of precision agriculture. But it was probably more significant because it gave the farmers on the promotion board and the Iowa Soybean Association board a greater appreciation of the benefits of on-farm research. And it ushered in a whole new approach to on-farm research that has been growing, evolving, and spreading to other states for the past 11 years.
Ron Heck was on the Iowa Soybean Association board at the time. “When the two boards would get together,” he says, “we'd ask each other, ‘How did this practice work for you?’ Then we realized we had the resources to create what led to the On-Farm Network. We could do sophisticated versions of asking other farmers, ‘How did that work for you?’ ”
That very year, the farmers on the Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Soybean Promotion boards jointly decided to start conducting agronomic research with farmer cooperators in addition to funding research at land-grant universities. Thus, the Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network was born. (Five years later, the two soybean groups merged under the Iowa Soybean Association banner and began operating with one board of 21 directors.)
It was a groundbreaking decision. “Grower organizations don't normally do this sort of research,” says Tracy Blackmer, director of research, who joined the On-Farm Network in August 2000. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't.
“If growers don't organize to collect true, independent, third-party data, they're going to be at the mercy of those who have data,” says Blackmer. “I believe that collecting this data can be the competitive edge for growers. If every grower in Iowa did one trial, we'd have over 40,000 trials. Through that, we would learn so much about how to improve our management. Most growers agree they can do at least one thing better. The question is how do you find it. I believe this network can find it.”
Blackmer, who has a doctorate in soil science, started his career at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. More recently he had worked for Monsanto in a program called Farm Optimization, which was collecting precision ag information. Several of the Iowa Soybean Association directors were involved with that project.
The time line on the opposite page traces the significant growth and the major accomplishments of the On-Farm Network since its beginning in 2000. It's growth in Iowa and beyond is actually one of its major accomplishments. There are now On-Farm Network programs in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
These networks are working with farmers, fertilizer dealers, soil and water conservation districts, land-grant universities, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), state departments of agriculture, and even an environmental group to develop and implement better crop-management practices.
A lot happened in a short amount of time in the inaugural year 2000. The On-Farm Network was launched and Blackmer was hired. In December, the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board funded the first GPS Research Groups for $50,000.
“The goal of this project was to provide growers who had global positioning systems (GPS) and yield monitors with the guidance and data processing needed to conduct on-farm research,” says Blackmer. “The focus of the On-Farm Network is to get growers coordinated and organized to use their precision ag technologies as a research tool.”
The On-Farm Network organizers hit the ground running – while the ground was still frozen. In January and February, they lined up enough farmer cooperators to conduct research comparing nitrogen rates, sources, and application techniques. That was despite the fact that many farmers had applied anhydrous ammonia the preceding fall. With a $159,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and with help from ISU, the On-Farm Network conducted over 100 replicated strip trials that season.
ISU surveyed cooperators in the On-Farm Network in 2004 and found that 84% of the cooperators who had evaluated their nitrogen programs made changes, resulting in an average nitrogen rate reduction of 32 pounds per acre.
About 50 people attended the first On-Farm Network Conference. (The 2011 conference was 10 times as large.)While working with Monsanto's Farm Optimization project, Blackmer learned the value of getting growers who participate in research together in small groups, and that is still the main approach. But the conference is a chance to reach other farmers.
Also in 2002, the On-Farm Network worked with a corporate sponsor for the first time. John Deere provided tractors, guidance systems, and rippers for over 150 deep-tillage trials in 2002 and 2003.
“That was the first time we realized we could actually partner with a corporation to do something,” says Blackmer.
And beginning in the fall of 2002, the On-Farm Network teamed up with the Iowa Soybean Association Environmental Programs to collect watershed data.
In 2004, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the On-Farm Network jointly received a NRCS Innovation Grant of $1,000,000 to study nutrient issues. “I would have laughed at you if you had told me when I began working with the Iowa Soybean Association that I would be working closely with an environmental group,” Blackmer recalled recently. But that's exactly what has happened. “We really have a great relationship with EDF that allows both groups to pursue their individual and mutual goals,” he says.
Suzy Friedman is EDF's deputy director for working lands and is a common sight at On-Farm Network meetings and field days. “When it comes to agriculture, I think collaborative approaches are the best drivers of innovation and effectiveness,” she says. (To learn more about EDF and it's support of the On-Farm Network approach, visit and
Farmers played a major role in the workings of the On-Farm Network from the beginning. After all, they initiated it. But that role was enhanced in 2005 with the creation of an 11-member advisory council.
The advisory council immediately tackled two issues with which the On-Farm Network was wrestling. One of those issues was whether to accept corporate money to help finance research. Previously, the group had only accepted in-kind product like Deere's furnishing equipment for the ripping research.
As long at the On-Farm Network controlled the data, kept cooperators' names private, and published all the results, regardless of the outcome, the council wasn't worried about a conflict of interest.
The second major issue facing the advisory council was whether to devote resources to advancing the methodology of strip trials and working to make them more widely accepted. Most university research is done in small, replicated plots.
“Early on, a lot of growers collected data so they could make better decisions,” says Blackmer. “The council said you need this network and this data to have additional value. Methodologies need to be substantiated so you can expand the benefit to more growers.”
The work of the advisory council carried over into 2006, as they recommended advancing the science by publishing methodologies and results in scientific papers.
Peter Kyveryga, who has a doctorate in soil fertility, was hired as senior research associate. He spends most of his time ferreting out the useful information in reams of data and evaluating the way tests are conducted with an eye toward improving the methodology. He also is the lead author on many of the articles that have been accepted in peer-reviewed publications.
Since 2007, 18 papers have been published, or are in the final stages of being published, in scientific journals. “The normal acceptance rate in publications like the Agronomy Journal is about 30%,” says Blackmer. “We are at 100% for all of the articles we have submitted so far.”
This was also the first year with programming in every county in Iowa. Over 400 strip trials were completed.
It was also the first year the On-Farm Network conducted research outside of Iowa. In November, the network started working in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware – three states that impact the Chesapeake Bay ( “The Chesapeake Bay showed that the same methodologies would work in a completely different environment,” says Blackmer.
Farmers played a major role in the workings of the on-farm network from the very beginning.
The advisory council also wanted to improve the technical acceptance of the methodology. Consequently, the On-Farm Network started making every individual trial available online (but without the farmers' names included).
“We developed a standard report with several pages so you can see the image of the field and exactly where the strips are and what, if any, data was cut out,” Blackmer explains. That information is in pdfs at the On-Farm Network website ( “The first year, we did it through the University of Illinois at Edwardsville,” says Blackmer. “We brought down the university website several times with all the data that we put on it.”
This year, the Maumee On-Farm Network was established in the western Lake Erie basin. It includes about 80 growers from Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan (
This was also the year the On-Farm Network started a major effort to get replicated strip trials accepted as a valid form of research. The strip trials are key to a type of research called Adaptive Management. It hinges on constantly evaluating production practices.
“Instead of just saying you are going to put on 125 pounds of nitrogen, it involves evaluating what worked and using that feedback to guide you going forward,” says Blackmer. That approach relies on such things as replicated strip trials of different nitrogen rates and guided stalk nitrate tests to determine which nitrogen rates worked best.
In August, On-Farm Network personnel along with representatives of five land-grant universities met with the NRCS and laid the groundwork for incorporating adaptive management in NRCS standards (see 2009, which follows).
Tom Morris, a University of Connecticut soil scientist, is one of the key people working with NRCS and others to define the process. Here, in simple terms, is the process of adaptive management: Plan, Implement, Evaluate, Learn, Adjust. Think of those as a continuous loop to be used to constantly refine decisions about such things as nitrogen rates and application techniques.
A USDA national coordinating committee (NEERA 1002) was formed in March 2009. “One of the main objectives of the committee was to include adaptive management in the NRCS (Code 590) Standard for Nutrient Management,” says Morris. Their conclusions are expected to be released soon. And Blackmer says the American Society of Agronomy recently switched from having divisions to having communities. “One of the communities that's officially structured now is adaptive management,” he says.
Also in 2009, the first peer-reviewed scientific paper by an Iowa Soybean Association employee was accepted for publication in the Agronomy Journal.
Midway through the year, On-Farm Network organizations were established in Indiana ( and Virginia (
In August, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the NRCS. The grant was to establish the On-Farm Network in Indiana. ISDA worked with the Jasper County Soil and Water Conservation District to enlist farmers. Aerial imagery and guided stalk sampling was conducted on 39 fields farmed by 17 different operators.
On-Farm Network organizations were established in Illinois (, Minnesota (, and North Carolina (
 If anything, the pace quickened this year for the Iowa Soybean Association's On-Farm Network. In February, a fungicide calculator was introduced. It uses the results and economics from 282 replicated field trials in Iowa over five years to make probability-based recommendations. You simply enter the cost of Headline plus application and a value for a bushel of soybeans. The calculator tells you what the break-even yield response is and the probability of exceeding the cost.
If growers don't organize to collect true, independent, third-party data, they are going to be at the mercy of those who have.
At the same time, the Iowa On-Farm Network started one of its most ambitious research projects to date. It's an effort to collect nutrient values from at least 500 cornfields and 500 soybean fields scattered across Iowa's 99 counties. It uses soil samples, leaf analysis, stalk tests, and aerial imagery. Funding comes from a grant and participating growers. The samples will be analyzed for N, P, K, S, Zn, B, Mn, Ca, Mg, Cu, and Na. Organic matter levels and cation exchange capacity will also be measured.
Early in the season, Missouri became the eleventh state to establish an On-Farm Network (
Kirk Leeds has been the chief executive officer of the Iowa Soybean Association since before the On-Farm Network started. “We've been overwhelmed by the response from growers to this program,” he says. “It's a reflection of the fact that farmers have always put a lot of stock in what other farmers say. We've made that more credible.” 
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